A Mid-December Confidence Builder

It’s mid-December and only a couple of weeks before my wife and I head to Florida for the month of January for a long visit with our daughter and her family. With the holidays closing in and the lack of mountainous terrain in North Florida, I felt like I needed a challenging day-hike to help build confidence for my upcoming Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I probably won’t have another chance to do a good day-hike or overnight trip until February or March and then I will start my thru-hike on April 1st. You can see that my level of anticipation is already pretty high!

So I packed up everything I plan to take on the AT along with two liters of water and a three-day food supply, weighed it in at 23 pounds, and drove up to the AT near Montebello, Virginia. I parked at the base of The Priest, where Virginia Route 56 crosses the AT at the Tye River. There were three other vehicles in the parking area, including a van from the College of William and Mary, so I knew that I was likely to see some other hikers or campers on the trail.

From the parking area I started hiking south, up The Priest, which is a challenging 3000 foot climb for about 4.5 miles. (This is the way South Bounders hike the trail – for a North Bounder The Priest is a long descent.) The weather was a cool 36 degrees at the start but after about 20 minutes of climbing I needed to shed my mid-weight base layer top and then was very comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. The climb is really long but goes through some nice terrain and has a couple of great overlooks, especially in the winter when views are not limited by the leaves. Only one creek was flowing – looking at a map I believe that it’s Cripple Creek. We haven’t had much rain here for the past few months so Cripple Creek must be a reliable water source. I’ll check it again in late May or early June when I plan to be passing through this area on the thru-hike.

As I climbed higher, the wind picked up and a thin layer of clouds rolled in, cooling things off considerably. So I stopped to put the base layer top back on and add a warm hat and light gloves. About two-thirds of the way up I met another backpacker who was heading down but he did not seem to be inclined to chat so I kept on hiking. As is usual for this time of year, I met some bear hunters and their dogs and chatted with a few of them. Even though it’s somewhat disconcerting to see people with guns on the trail, the hunters I’ve met have always been very friendly and considerate.

There are a couple of false summits that teased me into prematurely thinking I had arrived at the top but it wasn’t until I had been hiking for two hours that I reached the peak of The Priest, with its terrific viewing area that looks to the northwest over some large boulders. I took a short break there and put on a jacket, ate a snack and called my wife to let her know what time to expect me back, and then started back down. At my age, I sometimes dread long, steep descents but with the exception of a few rocky areas near the top that required extra care, the trail was pretty easy on the knees.

It took me a little less time to get back down to the car than it did to get up and the only people I passed were a couple of the hunters who I had seen on the way up. Again as I descended into warmer air and out of the wind I had to stop and shed some clothes. I got to the car and the thermometer said that it was 52 degrees – a very mild temperature for western Virginia in mid-December. On the way home I stopped at the small store in Montebello just to see if they stocked much merchandise for thru-hikers and was disappointed to see that they are oriented more towards car campers. But they do have some food, batteries and a few other items that might be useful for thru-hikers. Overall, though, I would not plan to resupply there unless I was really desperate.

The hike definitely was a confidence builder and I feel like I’m ready to begin the thru-hike. My pack weight feels good, my hydration system is working well, and my selection of clothing is keeping me comfortable without causing me to sweat a lot. One issue that I am still debating is whether I should use my GoLite Jam pack or switch to something with an internal frame that would be more comfortable carrying heavier loads for 8-10 hours per day. Several friends swear by the ULA Circuit backpack and I should probably check that out. The Jam is a good pack and it worked well for me on the Camino de Santiago but it’s designed for light loads (25 pounds max) and at times where I will have to carry more food it could be a problem. I need to think about that and try to borrow one of my friend’s pack to test it out.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful Holiday Season and that Santa brings you that perfect gift that you need for the trail. Until 2013…

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